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July 16, 2004

The CIA, Joseph Wilson, and Valerie Plame

Joseph Wilson is an opportunistic liar of no great interest in himself, but his story opens up interesting questions about the CIA and about the theoretical difficulties of managing bureaucrats. As I recount in earlier posts such as this one, when Vice- President Cheney tried to prod it into action on investigating the possible Iraq-Niger connection, the CIA chose an anti-Administration activist who is affiliated with a pro-Islamic think tank and was a political appointee of the previous, Democratic Administration to investigate. Moreover, the CIA seems not to have required him to sign an agreement not to disclose his secret mission to the New York Times, despite knowing that he loves publicity, and the CIA was strangely willing to confirm that his wife, Valerie Plame, was categorized as a secret operative, and unwilling to disclose that she suggested her husband for the job. What are we to make of this?

The January 2001 Vanity Fair article has some useful data. First: Vice- President Cheney (a proxy for President Bush) thought the CIA was doing a bad enough job that he wanted to see their raw data rather than trust that their analysis had anything backing it up, and that he visited the CIA in person to try to get them moving:

According to an October 27, 2003, story by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, there seemed to be a tendency by Cheney's office, among others, to bypass the analysts and use raw intelligence given directly to the administration.


Cheney and his chief of staff, Lewis Libby, visited the C.I.A. several times at Langley and told the staff to make more of an effort to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and to uncover Iraqi attempts to acquire nuclear capabilities. One of the people who objected most fervently to what he saw as "intimidation," according to one former C.I.A. case officer, was Alan Foley, then the head of the Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center. He was Valerie Plame's boss. (Foley could not be reached for comment.)

What is "intimidation" to the employee, of course, is "criticism for laziness" and "pressure to uncover past mistakes" to the boss. I had a good session with my PhD students today, one of whom is working on a mathematical model of bureaucracy and term limits, and how policy results from the interaction between voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. He has focussed on modelling policy preferences as a continuum between Liberal and Conservative, but I realize that there are two other dimensions worth his investigation. I can summarize these in the context of the CIA: "A: Let CIA employees play golf all day" versus "B: Make CIA employees work long hard hours" and "A: Let sleeping dogs lie" versus "B: Uncover past CIA mistakes". The CIA prefers option A in each case, and the politician--whether Democrat or Republican-- prefers B. Since each side has power, the ultimate policy will be somewhere in between.

It wasn't just Wilson who lied-- it was the CIA. Again, from Vanity Fair:

Phelps and Royce [of the July 22,2003 Newsday story] also cited a "senior intelligence official" who said that Plame did not recommend her husband for the Niger job, adding, "There are people elsewhere in the government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason. I can't figure out what it could be. We paid his (Wilson's) airfare. But to go to Niger is not exactly a benefit. Most people you'd have to pay big bucks to go there."

Here is what this looks like to me. There are widespread indications that the CIA is incompetent. Vice President Cheney was pressuring the CIA to do a better job. The CIA decided to fight back. They are, after all, experts in information and disinformation. So they gave Wilson the Niger mission to simultaneously pretend they were making efforts to investigate and to create a news story to embarass Cheney.

Both sides-- the Administration and the CIA-- knew this was just one battle in a bigger war. President Bush has been careful to praise the CIA over and over, despite the obviously bad job it has done, despite the embarassment it creates for him, and despite its higher levels being determined by the Clinton Administration for 8 years and by a Clinton appointee even after that. Why? Because Bush is a smart administrator. He knows that the CIA is a tough agency to discipline, especially when foreign affairs require it to function well in the short run. Any kind of reform of any organization is going to hurt short-run performance in exchange for helping long-run performance. Sometimes the short run is just too important to sacrifice. Moreover, the CIA is well positioned to fight back. Its activities are secret, so it is hard to disclose incompetence to the public, and the CIA can badly hurt the Administration in two ways-- by purposely giving it bad or incomplete information so the Administration later looks foolish, and by leaking embarassing information to the press. It can also claim that if the Administration tries to make it more effective that the Administration is bringing politics into what is an agency staffed by people with no opinions of their own, pure technocrats working for the good of the country. The CIA is uniquely positioned to make this claim-- they can say that they deserve very big budgets and have done extremely good work, they just can't give any evidence of it, because that would reveal secrets to the enemy.

Of course, the main enemy may be the taxpayer, but that is left unsaid.

So-- in this case, the CIA made it clear that if someone from the Administration messed with them even in a small way, they'd hit him hard and they'd be quite willing to hit below the belt. That is especially important because talk of fundamental overhaul of the agency is in the air-- even reorganization that would prevent the CIA Director from being such a defender of his bureaucracy-- and such talk has to be stopped before it gets far.

Why, then, did Cheney leave himself open to this kind of attack? He is an old hand at bureaucracy, after all.

(a) He does want to get results with bureaucrats, and wants to have reputation for toughness. He's worked with the Defense Department, one of the toughest agencies, and has learned that fear works better than love.

(b) He is in a stronger position than most vice-presidents, because he was chosen for his talent rather than for political advantage. Bush clearly chose him because he wanted a smart senior advisor with lots of experience-- there's no other reason to choose a Wyoming oil industry executive with no political constituency. The typical VP is someone like Quayle, Gore, or Edwards, who is chosen to give a slight advantage in an election and who therefore is

dispensable after the election is over. (c) Cheney is hard to scare. He is used to insult, used to running big organizations, and cares more about his legacy than about winning the next election. No doubt he would cheerfully step down as VP if Bush wanted him to-- it is not a stepping stone to something else for him.

Thus, this episode may give us some insight into the perils to be faced in administrative reform.

Posted by erasmuse at July 16, 2004 01:55 PM

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